My Lifelong Addiction to Road Trips
As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, travel for many is still a faraway dream. But Ian Frazier reminds us that there’s no more promising feeling than hitting the road, windows down, hair blowing, full speed ahead.
The longer I sit still, the more I yearn to move. The pull of motion isn’t a calm desire; it’s a nagging that builds up until I imagine that it enters the couch or the bed I’m on. I can’t stand lying there another second. Then I wonder if the bed, itself infected with yearning, has begun to move. It creaks as if it’s about to start. The key moment, the passing between the two states—from motionlessness to motion—will be almost undetectable. I keep watching for it. Is the headboard just slightly farther from the wall than it was a minute ago? We know that all beds secretly want to fly.
I grew up in Ohio, the centrifugal state. For no reason I can explain, Ohio takes people who were born there and spins them around and flings them in every direction. It’s no accident that the first man to fly, the first American to orbit the earth, and the first man to stand on the moon all came from Ohio. I come by my radical, excessive footloose-ness honestly, from my constantly spinning Ohio childhood. As kids, my friends and I roamed the local woods; by the time we were in junior high, we had started to hitchhike. In my late teens, I walked to the Ohio Turnpike, climbed the fence, stuck out my thumb, and ended up in Wyoming or Boston, almost on a whim, depending on whether I chose the westbound or eastbound lanes. Today, as an ex-Ohioan—a flung Ohioan—I am just as restless. My basic idea of how to get somewhere is to jump in the car and drive there, whether it’s to the store or to the edge of the tree line in Canada. I would rather drive for 20 hours than fly in a plane for three. But in the end, I’ll settle for any transport that will carry me.
Sometimes in everyday life I ride a commuter train. The New Jersey Transit, which serves our suburban town, has a lot of double-deckers, and when one of these is in the station in New York, the view from the lower level presents you with the boarding platform at shoe-top height. On the other side of the window, inches away, is the yellow zone at the edge of the platform, with its grid of little round bumps to keep people’s feet from slipping. Black, stenciled letters next to it say Stay Behind Yellow Line. The train doors make their ding noise and slide shut.
For no reason I can explain, Ohio takes people who were born there and spins them around and flings them in every direction.
Then, with almost imperceptible slowness, the no-skid bump on the other side of the window, the particular one I’m concentrating on, starts to move backward. I switch my gaze to another bump; it’s also moving backward, but slightly faster. I try to hold my focus on individual bumps as they come into view, but then they all accelerate into a yellow blur and lose their physicality like fish in a blender. For a moment the transition is painful. Only after the train has entered the blackness of the tunnel do I relax and enjoy the speed.
I think about another train, one that I rode in Siberia. Some years ago, I was driving across Russia with two Russian guys. Back then the road did not go all the way across but ran out at a remote Siberian railroad-junction village called Chernyshevsk. To this day it is the worst place I have ever been. At Chernyshevsk, travelers had no choice but to put their cars on the train if they wanted to continue across a 560-mile swamp between the village and where the road resumed. Hundreds of cars had been waiting for days for a place on the train. In and near the station there were swarms of sinister, crew-cut Russian guys and begging, heartbreaking, rapacious children, and no working bathrooms. There were no public trash barrels. Garbage covered the ground, and large flies as shiny blue as oil slicks buzzed all over. The month was August. We waited our turn to get on the train inside the piping-hot vehicle with the windows closed to keep out the crew cuts and the kids and the flies. After two days we finally got on, in a dark, closed freight wagon. More hours passed.
I will never forget when that train started to move. It began haltingly, after a few lurches and the clatter of the couplings, one after the next—a sound that diminished down the length of the train. Then it started to roll so slowly that it seemed always on the verge of stopping, but never quite did. I had thought we might remain in Chernyshevsk in remote eastern Siberia forever. I never expected such bliss as that first delicious feeling of motion. The train took a day and a half to cross the swamp, sometimes at what seemed about 15 miles an hour. I didn’t care how slowly it went as long as it kept going.
“So long, suckers!” That is what the object in motion sometimes shouts to the objects at rest. The objects at rest shout something back, but the object in motion can’t hear it above the wind in its ears.
When you are the moving object, and you build up momentum, stopping can be hard. I get addicted to the view over the next rise. Sometimes on a road trip I fall into a rhythm where I don’t even want to stop for gas. This used to drive my family crazy. They were always saying they were hungry, they had to go to the bathroom, and so on. I tried not to listen. Eventually, they would shout and kick the back of my seat, and I had to pull over somewhere. Then I got out and paced impatiently while they took forever, dawdling in restrooms and convenience-store aisles. When I’m in moving-object phase, I am not good to be with. For everybody’s sake, it’s better if I travel alone or with like-minded maniacs. That way I spare the innocent and make nobody crazy but myself.
Sometimes while in this phase I feel as if I’m a grease crayon drawing an endless line across the pavement. After, say, 52 hours of nonstop travel, I become a stub of wax, with not much left except the paper I was wrapped in. I understand that at such a point the biggest mistake I can make is to call home and expect my family to feel sorry for me. They know that the pitiless motion fever is my fault and my personal affliction.
Sometimes on a road trip I fall into a rhythm where I don’t even want to stop for gas. This used to drive my family crazy.
Once, in the farthest-away place I was ever flung to—a Siberian reindeer-herder village near a weather station that recorded the coldest temperature on the planet outside of Antarctica—I spent a night sleeping badly on a wooden bench in the village’s “guest room.” Then, in arctic daylight, I got up and ate frozen kielbasa for breakfast, stepped into the bright, bitter cold of the morning, and called my wife on my satellite phone. With sled dogs howling around me, I moaned about how miserable I was. She happened to be home with our two kids, who were sick. She never lets me forget this sorry performance of mine, nor should she.
Often the object at rest rebukes the object in motion in this way: At the height of family arguments, my daughter used to say to me, “How would you know? You’re never here!” The accusation stung, because all I was doing while in motion was trying to earn money to support my family. Or so I thought. In fact, I was caught up in an endless oscillation. While at rest, I always want to be going somewhere, but once I reach that place all I want is to get back home. If the pull of motion out of my bed is relentless, the pull of home is ten times stronger.
Last spring I decided I had to see the Great Plains again, so I drove the 1,500 miles out there from New Jersey. Actually, it was more like 3,000 miles, as I ricocheted along an indirect route, from the famous Natural Bridge in Virginia, a beautiful, high stone arch, created by erosion, that Thomas Jefferson once owned, to the Tina Turner museum, in Tennessee, which is in the one-room schoolhouse she attended as a girl, to a museum in New Madrid, Missouri, devoted to the earthquake that caused the Mississippi River to run backward in 1812. I took a break to visit friends in Little Rock, Arkansas. Then I cut across into Oklahoma and continued on to Kansas; I pictured myself as a tiny icon moving on a map.
In Colorado, I decided to follow a two-lane road stretching to the western horizon beyond a sign that warned No Services Next 70 Miles. The weather ahead looked sketchy, but stopping just for the sake of good judgment is rarely an option I pay attention to. The sun went down. Towering blue and black and grayish-yellow clouds piled up, and a cannonade of lightning flashes filled the sky, except in the southeast. At a tiny junction called Punkin Center, I had a chance to turn away from the storm, but instead I drove straight on. Rain began to fall, obscuring the windshield even with the wipers on the fastest speed. Then hail came down in buckets, making a deafening racket, bouncing off the hood, and I thought it might break the windshield. A truck had preceded me down the narrow, cracked two-lane road. I followed its tracks through the hailstones, now several inches deep.
On the plains you sometimes feel a power that can squash you flat. Now it was right overhead, surrounding me with electric-blue and yellow and orange lightning that illuminated huge clouds in strobe-light pulses. The windshield fogged, and I kept rubbing it. Each mile I made was an achievement. Hours of this put me within sight of the lights of Colorado Springs; my Jersey car had never been in such a tussle. Slowly, the lights came closer. I reached the city limits sign. I had seen the Great Plains elephant, and suddenly I was ready to go home.
In a way, going home is the most uncomplicated, mentally comfortable part of any journey.
The next day I turned around and drove back, doing as many miles as I could at a stretch before I had to rest. In a way, going home is the most uncomplicated, mentally comfortable part of any journey. A mindless homing urge takes over, and I keep my eyes straight ahead with no destination but my own driveway. Home becomes a magnetized place that’s drawing me, and getting to it preempts every other intention. I will reach it no matter what; if the car broke down, I would jump out and flag a ride or walk. I go and go, and when I finally arrive, I hit my bed with a thwap, quivering like an arrow shot into a block of wood.
As a boy, I used to fall asleep to the sounds of turnpike traffic. A long upgrade from the Cuyahoga River valley ran near our house, and the trucks downshifted in a regular sequence as they climbed it—a soothing progression of motor sounds. Now I live on a busy street, and I’m so used to the noise of traffic that I’m awakened when there isn’t any. But here, as in many places, the objects in motion and the objects at rest are at odds. The endless passage of cars and trucks and motorcycles eats away at the neighborhood’s front yards. Every so often, a car jumps a curb and crashes into a telephone pole or a front porch. In the end, the street’s motion breeds chaos. If my neighbors and I did not constantly pick up the detritus thrown from the traffic—the Newport packs, the Amazon delivery forms, the plastic drink lids with plastic straws stuck though them—our yards would soon be buried.
The object in motion and the object at rest are deeply connected; they are each other’s mirror double. Now that I’m older, and more often an object at rest, I see other people off at airports more often than I’m seen off myself. The object in motion—sometimes it’s my son, my mirror double, on his way to Russia, where I used to call from when he was a boy—hugs me and lets go and waves and disappears around the corner into the airport security lines. The rush of love and longing I feel at that moment almost floors me. Every departure partakes of eternity. The mysterious, ephemeral zone between motionlessness and motion holds all the yearning in the world.
Due to the changing nature of state-to-state travel advisories, check both state and individual websites for safety protocols and potential closures before you hit the road.